Horniman cabinets

Having muttered about the aquarium and some of the model archosaurs, it’s time to turn to the actual displays. I’ve mused a fair bit on the past on signs, displays and exhibitions in museums and generally advocated more information, more basics to biology and more attention to putting things in context. All of this is done superbly here (despite the rather venerable nature of much of it) and is put nicely in the context of diversity as a whole. So while there is a gallery devoted to diversity and classification, and cabinets that show key groups like parrots and carnivores, a lot of space is given to presenting fundamentals of biology.

This is done well though, so that not just the key point is made simply and effectively, but that more information is available if you delve into the details, and there is much to look at and enjoy, even if you don’t read a word. There are displays dedicated to sexual selection, convergence (spines in one case, moving in water for another), crypsis and display colours, flight and more. Below are some of these to give a flavour of the kind of thing that is on show, though a bit of the context is lost as several of these were part of a series, the point should be quite clear.

Dogs: A clear a simple display of skulls and heads (mostly cut off). Domestic animals are a great way to introduce ideas about variation and what can happen with selective breeding as they are so familiar, and in dogs you have perhaps the most familiar and most varied animal.

The embryological sequence is superb and mapped out from a single-celled zygote upwards, showing the whole pattern and process of vertebrate embryology.

Skulls: A nice display to show the number and diversity of bones in the skull and their consistency across many differnt groups.

More on skulls: this follows the previous display and shows more explicitly how certain changes occurred and clearly the coloured bones helps show the changing shapes and emphasise the positions of the fenestrae in the skull.

Evolution of the elephant: Mammoths aside, many people might not be aware of other fossil elephants. Here we see skulls, teeth (key characters for this clade), and life restorations.

Modifications: birds are highly derived animals specialised for flight, but here we see how penguins have reversed or modified some of these traits for swimming.

All in all this is superb stuff. There’s lots of little features here which will grab attention and answer questions and prompt thought – just the kind of thing you want from a museum. Moreover, the design is superb – in pretty much every case, a 5 second glance is enough to convey the really basic and essential message (skulls have the same bones but are different, you can breed lots of variety from a stock ancestor) but that taking time will unveil greater depth and detail.

4 Responses to “Horniman cabinets”


  1. 1 Mark Robinson 04/06/2012 at 4:13 am

    I agree, Dave, those cabinets are almost perfect. I think most museums struggle with whether they should cater to the type of visitor who reads every bit of text and happily spends hours poking about in dusty corners, and the more casual drop-in who just wants to see the dinosaurs, a sabre-tooth, and a big shark in an hour and a half.

    The displays are clean, clear, and very well structured. Most people will pick up the main message as they walk past but those that linger for a moment and read the labels will get a little more, while those that stay and read all of the text will be further rewarded. Excellent stuff.

    [Hmm, I've pretty much just paraphrased your last para, nvm].

  2. 2 Schenck 05/06/2012 at 3:24 pm

    Wow, this museum looks great, wish I had known about it when I was in London a few months ago. Definitely need to see it next time!

  3. 3 Schenck 05/06/2012 at 3:26 pm

    Just looked at a map of the area, to think I must’ve passed by it on the way to see the Crystal Palace dinosaurs! Are you planing on going to that site too?


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